Friday, November 30, 2018

Listening to podcasts and longing for home

Back in September I (finally) acquired an Android phone that, as I like to say using technical jargon, "does stuff." I apologize to Apple affectionados, among whom is my wife. I jokingly say, when pressed by Apple users, that Apple is the tech subsidiary of Scientology. Then, a few weeks ago for my birthday, I was given a pair of Bluetooth headphones. Since then I have discovered podcasts. What a vast domain! The app. I chose for podcasting, after doing a little market research, is Castbox. I won't bore you with all my adventures in the podcast-i-verse over the past few weeks. I have to say, it's been kind of fun.

I have found a number of entertaining, inspiring, and informative podcasts. One is an old stand-by: the podcast of Harry Shearer's weekly radio program Le Show. This is a program I have listened to for years. It's nice to be able to listen to it almost anywhere on my "audio device of choice." While I know this will rub some people the wrong way, I also very much enjoy listening to Alec Baldwin's Here's the Thing podcast, which I discovered onboard a Delta flight on business trip earlier this year. Most recently, he interviewed Roger Daltrey, lead singer of one of the greatest rock groups of all-time, The Who. I have also found a couple of useful podcasts that help me with some issues with which I struggle.

On the spiritual side of things, I benefit immensely from the Renovaré podcast with Nathan Foster. Over this past week I have listened to a few episodes of In the Studio with Michael Card. Michael has a new book coming out that I am excited about- Inexpressible: Hesed and the Mystery of God's Lovingkindness. A recent podcast features Michael giving a deeply insightful presentation on the Hesed, or lovingkindness, of Jesus. Do yourself a favor and listen to exactly the first 24 minutes of it.

One particular episode of Michael Card's podcast that struck me even to the point of tears, touched on a theme I have explored on this blog: my longing, our common human longing, for home. In a post from more than four years ago (tempest fugit!) I wrote about this (see "Odysseus and the quest for home"). From 2002 to 2009, The Studio with Michael Card was a weekly radio program. Judging from the episodes available for listening, about a year ago Card resurrected this for a podcast. Some of the episodes, those dubbed "Classic," are radio programs that were digitally recorded and now made available for podcasting.

The episode of In the Studio that struck a deep chord within me this week is a Classic episode. Well, actually, it's the first-half of an episode. This part of the the program featured Dr. Larry Crabb, from whose writings I have benefited for years, and contemporary Christian musical artist Sarah Groves. It is one of the "Classic" episodes, meaning it was originally broadcast at least nine years ago. It also features a pretty insightful discussion on the Book of Job.

Home is where the heart is, which is why our hearts our restless as we journey towards what the inspired author of the Letter to the Hebrews called our "sabbath rest" (see Hebrews 4:9-11). I suppose this is a good place to cite the over-cited observation of St. Augustine, which he made in Book I Chapter 1 of his Confessions: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

Yesterday on Facebook I posted the titles of several movies that I think are among the best Christian movies (another post will follow on this). I asked my friends to do the same. I was surprised by how many responded (I only have 112 FB friends). One friend of very long-standing, not-so-tongue-in-check, put forward Monty Python's Life of Brian. This prompted me to immediately call-to-mind these lyrics from the song with which the movie ends - "Always Look on the Bright of Life" - "Life's a piece of shit/When you look at it/Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true..."

Hope, it often seems to me, is simply the obstinate belief that somehow, in the end, the journey of life is worthwhile. The idea of returning home, of suffering to return home, like Odysseus, which is what the word "nostalgia" literally means (not "Odysseus" but suffering to return home - language is a funny thing), is how this obstinate belief can be understood in the service of being realized.

Fittingly, our traditio for this final Friday of this year of grace is Sarah Groves singing her song "Going Home"-

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Making God's kingdom present

Because it's Year B of the Sunday lectionary cycle during which we take St. Mark's Gospel as our Sunday staple, on today's Solemnity of the Christ the King we turn, as we did for five weeks earlier this year, to St. John's Gospel. But what we hear is perfectly congruent with what have heard from Mark over the previous few months. In today's Gospel, when Jesus tells Pilate "My kingdom does not belong to this world," he is referring to the fact that God's kingdom is not established by force, by political coercion, or by imposition. In much the same way we distinguish "the flesh" from the body in the writings of St. Paul (in Greek "flesh" is sarx and body is soma), we must distinguish between "the world" to which God's kingdom is the antidote and the world, perhaps most accurately described by Wittgenstein at the beginning of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as "everything that is the case." In short, Jesus is not saying his kingdom is other-worldly. Because of the Incarnation, Christianity is not a form of Gnosticism.

The kingdom over which Jesus will rule and reign is a kingdom made u[ of those like Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, the scribe who grasped that loving God by loving one's neighbor is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices, and the poor widow who selflessly gave all she had, even though it wasn't very much. Suffice it say, a kingdom comprised of such people does not need to be ruled with a firm hand, let alone an iron fist.

As the Messiah, Jesus was a disappointment. Yes, he was a descendant of David, which is why Bartimaeus hailed him with the Messianic greeting "Son of David." But he did not come to route the occupiers (i.e., the Romans) and re-establish a united Israelite kingdom over which he would serve as temporal ruler. Because his kingship is æternal, there is nothing temporal or temporary about Christ's kingship.

Jesus is autobasileia, the kingdom in person. This is why, in the very first chapter of Mark's Gospel, after he emerges from the desert, the Lord declares, "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand" (Mark 1:15). By means of the communion we share, Christ desires to be present in us so that through us he can be present wherever we go. Wherever we go we should seek to make God's kingdom present. You see, the kingdom of God is not currently absent. It is present in you and me like the small mustard seed. God's kingdom is not established by governments or cultural institutions but by people who lose their lives for the sake of further establishing it. Whether through martyrdom or simply by lives lived in service to those in need, God's kingdom is spread by people most of whose names we do not know. This does not matter, as these people seek to glorify the name of Jesus, not their own.

Last evening we watched the 1975 movie The Hiding Place. Filmed two years after the book was published, the movie (and the book) tells the story of the Ten Boom family. The Ten Booms were Dutch Christians who, in German-occupied Holland, opened their watchmaking shop and attached home to Jews seeking refuge.

Eventually, the Ten Booms were arrested by the Germans. Casper, the family patriarch, died shortly after being detained. His daughters Corrie and Betsie, along with his son Willem, were deported to concentration camps. Corrie and Betsie were sent to Ravensbrück. Throughout their ordeal, the two sisters made the kingdom of God present by praying, bearing witness, serving their fellow prisoners, and working not to harbor hatred in their hearts for those who mistreated them. Betsie perished in the camp. Willem also died in detention. Only Corrie, who wrote The Hiding Place, survived.

Corrie Ten Boom's gravestone in Fairhaven Memorial Park, Santa Ana, California

What the sisters Ten Boom discovered while interned in Ravensbrückis is set forth very well in a sort of motto Betsie uttered: "There is no pit so deep, that God's love is not deeper still." This certainly echoes the words of Psalm 139:8b- "if I lie down in Sheol, there you are." These two women show us what it means to make God's kingdom present. They also show us what Christ himself showed us on the cross: the power by which Christ will finally establish God's kingdom in full is love. It is people like Corrie and Betsie Ten Boom who will inhabit God's kingdom. I suggest reading the book or watching the movie over Advent.

We are not to wait for Christ's return to reign in a passive manner. No, as his followers, we must seek every day in each situation to make God's kingdom present wherever we are.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

A return to prayer: relearning the goodness of God

Immediately after the bishop's homily during Mass of Ordination, the candidates for ordination to the diaconate are called forward and, if married, they are asked five questions. If they are not married, a candidate(s) is asked a sixth question, which comes after the third, vowing celibacy (Roman Pontifical, "Promises of the Elect" in Rite of Ordination of Several Deacons, sec. 200). Answering in unison, the candidates respond "I do" to the first four questions (Ibid). Again, in unison, they respond "I do, with the help of God" to the fifth question. The fourth question the ordaining bishop asks the candidates (fifth question for unmarried candidates) is:
Do [all of] you resolve to maintain and deepen the spirit of prayer that is proper to your way of life and, in keeping with this spirit and what is required of you, to celebrate faithfully the Liturgy of the Hours with and for the People of God and indeed for the whole world? (Ibid. NB: words in brackets in Pontifical text)
In practical terms, what this typically taken to mean for permanent deacons, whose vocation, as James Keating noted, is one of "creative tension - a cleric living a lay life" (The Heart of the Diaconate: Communion with the Servant Mysteries of Christ, 1), is daily praying what are known as the two hinge hours of the Liturgy of the Hours: Morning and Evening Prayer. These offices are still sometimes called by their older Latin names: Lauds and Vespers, respectively. Over the nearly fifteen years I have been ordained, I have remained faithful to this promise with lapses here and there. Personally, I view these lapses as grave enough to bring them to confession.

I don't mind sharing the first few weeks of November this year has seen me lapse in prayer. Prior to my recent lapse, after Morning Prayer and some days after Evening Prayer as well, I was daily reading a chapter of the Rule of St Benedict and then making recourse to Esther de Waal's excellent commentary on it. One reason for my lapses in blogging this year is that I am striving to complete a Doctor of Ministry degree. I am part of the inaugural class of Mount Angel Seminary's Doctor of Ministry (D.Min). Completing academic work for my final year, which includes my dissertation and comprehensive examination, has proven to be very stressful. In addition to being a seminary, Mount Angel is a thriving Benedictine Abbey. So, for about a month the past three summers, I have been in residence at the Abbey during my academic residencies. All of this is just to point out that I have experienced a bit of an immersive experience into Benedictine life. In fact, I picked up de Waal's A Life-Giving Way: A Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict at the Abbey/Seminary library this past summer.

My only previous foray into St. Benedict's Rule was a few years ago when I was asked by our parish's Knights of Columbus Council to give a one-day Lenten retreat. Over the course of a few weeks, I put together a half-day on the seventh chapter of the Rule, which bears the heading "The value of humility." Chapter seven is perhaps the most famous and well-known part of the great saint of Nursia's Rule, or regula. It is in this chapter that Benedict uses a twelve-step ladder to symbolize "for each of us our life in this world during which we aspire to be lifted up to heaven by Lord, if only we can learn humility in our hearts" (Saint Benedict's Rule: A New Translation for Today, trans. Patrick Barry, OSB, 21- courtesy of one of my spiritual mentors, I have a nice cloth-bound copy of Abbot Patrick's translation).

My lapses in prayer end once I stop feeling bad about not praying as I have promised to pray and simply start praying again. This simple step shows me once again, every time, how gentle and merciful is the Lord. In the prologue to his regula, which vies for the ladder of humility in being the best known part of his Rule, St. Benedict writes:
This, then, is the beginning of my advice: make prayer the first step in anything worthwhile that you attempt. Persevere and do not weaken in that prayer. Pray with confidence, because God, in his love and forgiveness, has counted us as his own sons and daughters (Saint Benedict's Rule, 1)
Having finished chapter seven on humility and de Waal's insightful commentary on it prior to my lapse, I picked up this morning with the eighth chapter.

Chapter eight of the Rule bears the heading "The Divine Office at night." Here is the complete text:
It seems reasonable that during wintertime, that is from the first of November until Easter all should rise at the eighth hour of the night. By that time, having rested until a little after midnight, they may rise with their food well digested. Any time which is left after Vigils should be devoted to study of the psalter or lessons by those who are behind hand in these tasks. From Easter until the first of November the times should be arranged so that there is a very short break after Vigils for the needs of nature. Lauds can then follow at the first light of daybreak (Saint Benedict's Rule, 93)
In Abbot Patrick's translation chapters 8-18 appear as an appendix. In light of some alterations to the routine Benedict laid out, especially those ushered in by the Second Vatican Council, he felt they were somewhat obscure and perhaps even irrelevant to non-monastics. In her commentary, de Waal shows how this chapter, given its practicality, is relevant to non-monastics.

A photo I took of an icon of St. Benedict at Mount Angel Abbey, 29 June 2018

One of the things that becomes apparent reading the Rule of Saint Benedict, especially the Prologue through the seventh chapter, is that outward practices are engaged in only for the purpose of fostering in them the proper inward disposition. In other words, the practices laid out in the Rule are means to the end of loving God and neighbor. This is what makes it a valuable regula, with proper adaptations, for anyone who endeavors to be Christ's disciple, even those of us who do not belong to Benedictine monastic communities. As de Waal sees it, chapters 5-7 of the Rule are geared towards helping me form "the attitude that is to underlie the art of praying" (A Life-Giving Way, 56). She enumerates five attitudes: "the fear of the Lord, the total dependence on God, the constant awareness of God's presence [even when my prayer goes lax], the demand of continual perseverance and patience [of which I am reminded each time I chose to simply start praying], and above all, the motivation of love" (Ibid). In a straightforward Benedictine manner, she points out: "The whole end of life is to hear the Word and respond to it" (Ibid). It is in this way "The whole of my life" can "become prayer" (Ibid).

De Waal notes that in this short chapter, mindfulness, while necessary is not sufficient for prayer. Prayer requires fixed times and a certain structure. It is a discipline. This gets back to adhering to the discipline of praying Morning and Evening Prayer, as well as setting aside time for prayer between these two poles of the day, like reciting the Rosary or simply taking ten minutes for silence and meditation. Benedict, de Waal notes, never removes prayer from life's rhythms. Rather, he seeks to make it part of the changing seasons of the year, of daytime and nighttime, "and not least of which the rhythm of my own body" (A Life-Giving Way, 56). Returning to the tremendous practicality of Benedictine spirituality, de Waal points out:
In a world in which the techniques of prayer are widely discussed and so many varying techniques seem to be offered, it is rather startling to have the subjects of sleep, digestion, and making time to go the lavatory introduced in this short chapter (Ibid)
Once again, she highlights the truly Christian character of the Rule by noting that Benedict does not provide us with "some idealized blueprint" but rather he takes into account "our total humanity - body, mind, and spirit - and recognizes that balance here: praying is dissociated neither from a gentle handling of bodily needs, nor from intellectual demand" (Ibid). The Rule is for those people who follow it, not the other way around.

De Waal ends her commentary on the eighth chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict by highlighting the spiritual importance of rising early. I recently read two articles on this, which served to reinforce the goodness of early-rising: "It’s Astounding How Many Problems Can Be Solved Just by Waking Up Early" and "The Scientific Argument For Waking Up Early." Comparing these to the Rule of St. Benedict, as well as other useful spiritual writings, this seems to be one of those instances in which reason ("science" as it is often called these daze) is catching up, or rather confirming, to faith. or at least wise human praxis. Arising early, before the break of day, it seems, is a habit worth acquiring.

According to the Rule, monks went to bed at 6:00 PM and arose at 2:00 AM to communally pray the night office(s). "They would thus start the day in the dark," de Waal observes (A Life-Giving Rule, 57). In de Waal's view, starting the day in the dark enabled them to experience "the slow coming of the dawn," which "would be a symbolic daily reminder of the movement from dark to light, from sleep and death to new life" (Ibid). Pointing to Pater Tom's (for newish readers, this how I refer to Thomas Merton) habit of arising at 2:15 AM while staying in the hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani, she highlights "that those hours before dawn are perhaps the best time of all for prayer" (Ibid). She cites Merton's own rather poetic observation about this:
It is necessary for me to see the first point of light which begins to dawn. It is necessary to be present alone at the resurrection of Day, in blank silence when the sun appears. In this completely neutral instant I receive from the eastern woods, the tall oaks, the one word, "Day" which is never the same. It is never spoken in any known language (A Life-Giving Rule, 57)
Simple as I am, experiencing all of this today as I chose to pray again, which is what each day requires, I am grateful that God is good, kind, and merciful to me, his slacker son, but a son I remain.

Friday, November 23, 2018

The importance of giving thanks

I suppose the Friday after Thanksgiving still counts as Thanksgiving. Over most of the years of my blog I have put up a post about Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving. Beginning three years ago, we began celebrating this holiday at home. Celebrating Thanksgiving at home requires me to work most of the day preparing food and cleaning up as we go. You know what? Believe or not, putting myself in the direct service of my family in these ways, along with serving at Mass and going for a long walk with my wife, have made this holiday much more enjoyable than going to someone else's house, which created the space for a certain listlessness.

Despite the fact that I believe being thankful is very important, I am often not as thankful as I should be, especially in any given moment. Thankfulness for me usually arises when I look backwards in time. Like a lot of people, I find it easier lament what I don't have. A lot of what I don't have that I think I need are just things that I want. Quite a few of these things I am better off without. Hence, even in these uneasy times (maybe especially in these uneasy times), it is good that my country, the United States of America, dedicates a day each year for giving thanks. Beyond one day, we should cultivate, to borrow a cliché, an attitude of gratitude. I don't know about you, but for me that is a tall order many days, perhaps even most days.

However, despite themselves, people seem to cotton to the opportunity to express gratitude. It seems quite natural to express thanks for people and circumstances before getting around to expressing thanks for things. As I never tire of saying, at least from a Christian standpoint, wealth and material abundance are obstacles not only to salvation but to happiness in the here and now. Like eating junk food when you are really hungry, trying to fill the existential void tha is part and parcel of being human, which parcel is made larger for many of us by living in affluent, late capitalist societies, the chasm only yawns wider.

Welsh landscape

As Christians, we first and foremost express gratitude to God. Our primary way of doing this is by participating in the Eucharist. In its original Greek, "Eucharist" refers to giving thanks. So, if you attended Mass yesterday, or otherwise celebrated the Lord's Supper with members of your local Christian assembly, you participated in the greatest feast of all, which dwarfs whatever other meal you went on to eat. You know, receiving a small, tasteless, wafer and sip of not-so-great wine highlights nicely what I was trying to communicate in the previous paragraph.

Of the several options for Gospel readings on Thanksgiving, we used the pericope from St Luke's Gospel in which Jesus heals the 10 lepers who cry out to him for mercy (see Luke 17:11-19). Of the 10, only one returned to give him thanks. The Greek word used in this verse for the English phrase "thanked hi" is euchariston (Luke 17:16). Just like in the parable related by the inspired author Luke seven chapters earlier (see Luke 10:25-37), the one healed leper who returned to thank Jesus is a Samaritan. Just as Jesus averred at the end of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, referring to the thankful Samaritan who was healed of leprosy, we can end this too by insisting "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37).

Speaking of being thankful, two days ago, the day before Thanksgiving, we celebrated the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This observance is all about us sharing in the gratitude of Joachim and Anna for Our Lady, who was chosen before she was presented.

The National, with their characteristic gravity, singing "Save the Bird" from this year's Thanksgiving episode of a television show I like quite a bit - Bob's Burgers- is our Friday traditio:

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Year B Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Dan 12:1-3; Ps 16:5.8-11; Heb 10:11-14.18; Mark 13:24-32

Today is the penultimate Sunday of this liturgical year. For those who are scratching their heads, “penultimate” (a great word) means “next-to-last.” Since each year on the Feast of Christ the King, the final Sunday of the liturgical year, we ritually commemorate the end of the world, our Gospel reading for today is fittingly apocalyptic in anticipation of next Sunday.

“Apocalyptic” (another great word) refers to something covered or unknown being unveiled or revealed. This is why another title for the Book of Revelation is “The Apocalypse.”

Sometimes it’s easy to forget or, perhaps more accurately, ignore that we believe and profess Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” (The Roman Missal, English Translation According to the Third Typical Edition, The Order of Mass, sec. 18). Today’s Gospel shows us that this teaching comes from the Lord himself. While we believe that he will return in glory to gather his elect, we do not know the day nor the hour of his return. Every attempt to predict Christ’s Second Coming has been wrong. For some people who have believed those who claimed to know the day and the hour of the Lord’s return, this has proven catastrophic.

Because we do not know when Christ will return, like the ten wise virgins in Matthew's Gospel, we need to live in a state of readiness (Matt 25:1-13). In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus tells those listening that his return is imminent, thus implying they should be prepared. Among other things, being prepared to meet the Lord means not growing weary during our hopeful waiting. It means not becoming distracted by our society’s many allurements, almost all of which are like eating junk food to satisfy real hunger. After professing that Christ will return to judge the living and the dead, in the Creed we confess that his “kingdom will have no end” (The Roman Missal, English Translation According to the Third Typical Edition, The Order of Mass, sec. 18). Making yourself ready for the coming of God's unending kingdom means living it now as a present reality instead of deferring it, believing it has nothing to do with how you live.

Who are the elect that Jesus speaks about in today’s Gospel reading? They are the ones who live the kingdom of God as a present reality. This means living in accordance with those teachings Jesus imparted in his School of Discipleship. If you remember, Jesus's teaching centered on the fact that you become great by serving others for the sake of God’s kingdom. Indeed, he taught the way you save your life is by losing it for his sake, while seeking to save your life will result in losing it.

In St Mark’s Gospel, once the lessons that make-up Jesus’s School of Discipleship are concluded, what these things mean immediately begin to become clear. The first encounter in the section of Mark’s Gospel that follows the “On the Way” section occurs as Jesus and the disciples pass through Jericho. It is from Jericho that they will make their way up the mountain to Jerusalem. Passing through the town, they encounter the blind man, Bartimaeus. Despite being blind, Bartimaeus is the only one who “sees” that Jesus is the Messiah. This is indicated by his calling this itinerant rabbi from Nazareth “son of David” (Mark 10:47-48). Son of David is a Messianic greeting. And so, even before restoring his eyesight, Jesus tells the blind beggar, “Go your way; your faith has saved you” (Mark 10:52). Rather than going his own way, Bartimaeus follows Jesus.

The Last Judgment, by Giotto, 1306

After arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus encounters the sincere scribe who asks him which of all the commandments are the greatest. For observant Jews of Jesus's day, observance of the Law meant adhering to the 613 mitzvot (mitzvot means "words" in Hebrew). These were 613 rules, dos and donts, the observance of which constituted keeping the Law. He wanted to know which of all these were the greatest. The Lord answers this serious inquiry from the heart of the Torah by telling the scribe the end to which all the other commandments are but the means: loving God with your whole being and loving your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31; Deut 6:4-6; Lev 19:18).

Understanding the Lord, the scribe makes the relevant point, which bears a similarity to our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews: “to love [God] with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself' is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33). This realization prompts the Lord to tell him: “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). After Jesus tells the scribe this, the inspired author of Mark relates that nobody dared ask him any more questions (Ibid.). This is a curious remark, is it not? Why did no one dare to ask him more questions? Perhaps it was because they found his answer perhaps a bit too challenging.

In last week’s Gospel, we heard about the poor widow who put what little money she had into the Temple treasury. Observing her at a distance, Jesus tells those who were with him that her few pennies are worth more than the much larger bequests made by wealthier people (See Mark 12:41-44). These three people bring to life the lessons Jesus taught the Twelve while they were “On the Way.” By so doing, they also provide the criteria for judgment.

Lest we grow discouraged by the high demands Jesus makes of those who would follow him, our reading from Hebrews today should encourage us. Jesus Christ is the Mercy of God. All of the sacrifices made in the Temple were but foreshadowings of the one sacrifice Christ made on the cross. By believing that Jesus is the Christ we who are set apart by baptism and confirmation are being made perfect by grace. We come to this table of Word and Sacrament each week to receive the instruction and strength we need to live as Jesus’s followers and to encourage each other as we walk the road of life.

By living in the expectation of Jesus’s imminent return, which we do by nurturing the mustard seed that is God kingdom, planted by Jesus, we don’t need to worry ourselves about looking for esoteric signs of his coming. Besides, seeking such signs, as the Lord indicated, is a futile endeavor. As we contemplate the end of the world, or at least call to mind the horizon of our own mortal lives in preparation for a new liturgical year, a new year of grace, I hope all of us re-commit ourselves following Jesus. You do this by loving God with your entire being. You cannot love God completely without also loving your neighbor as yourself. You cannot love your neighbor, who, Jesus tells us in the Parable of the Good Samaritan is the person you encounter who needs help (Luke 10:29-37), without serving her.

There is a story told about St Francis: one day he was working in the garden with another friar when the friar asked Francis, who was committed to serving others and who knew what it means to call Jesus Lord, what he would do if the Lord returned right at that moment. Francis replied: “I would just keep working.” This answer is indicative of someone who understands that God’s kingdom is already present in the world and who works to spread it and so looks forward with a peaceful conscience to its growing until the day when, having subjected all things, including to death, to himself, Christ turns everything over to the Father and God becomes all in all (1 Cor 15:28).

In a recent tweet, Pope Francis pointed out: “Nobody can delude themselves by thinking, ‘I’m fine because I’m not doing anything wrong’. To be a follower of Jesus it is not enough not to do wrong, because there is good that we must do!” In a very real sense, every day is judgment day. This is why taking the opportunity to both think about your death and examine your conscience daily as well is a good, perhaps even necessary, spiritual practice, as is going to confession with some frequency. The Church’s Prayer after Communion for today implores God that our participation in this Eucharist “may bring us growth in charity” (The Roman Missal, English Translation According to the Third Typical Edition, Proper of Time, Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time). Lord, hear our prayer.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Celebrating the world's end and feeling fine

Each year the Roman Catholic Church dedicates the month of November to praying for the dead. It is also during November that the liturgical comes to an end. Of course, the last Sunday in Ordinary Time is the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. Hence, our readings from the lectionary during these final weeks of the year tend to be eschatological (i.e., having to do with the end of time). Our second reading for this Solemnity is taken from the Book of Revelation. In the northern hemisphere, late autumn lends itself nicely to reflecting on death and last things.

Throughout our uniquely Christian Scriptures, collectively known as the New Testament, great emphasis is placed on living in anticipation of Jesus's return, which can happen at any time with no warning. Living this way is how Christ's disciples are to live. It doesn't mean that the things of this world do not matter. On the contrary, it means how we live in this world matters greatly. It is not whether or not life in this world matters, but what in the world matters and what doesn't. Living this way requires us not only to detach ourselves from riches and possessions but to use our time and resources to take care of those in need.

Christ the Judge, Basilica of the Immaculate Conception

To live in this way is how a person prepares for eternal life, for unending life in in God's kingdom. To live in any other way is move away from life in God's kingdom, perhaps ensuring that life in that kingdom, which, according to the teaching of the Lord, is our world turned upside-down, is not our desired destiny.

It's important to keep in mind that God's unending kingdom, once established, will not be in heaven. Rather, heaven will come down to earth:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.b 3I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God]. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away (Revelation 21:1-4)
A fitting for traditio for this penultimate Friday of our current year of grace is the Gradual from the Requiem Mass:

Monday, November 12, 2018

Beginning a bit early: a pre-Advent reflection

Since returning (or is that "returning"?) from my blogging hiatus at the end of July my efforts here have been pretty spotty at best. This can be put down to two factors: lack of time and lack of desire. Lately, my desire to write regularly has begun to return. As I was pondering this earlier today, it occurred to me that Advent is just around the corner. Advent, of course, marks the beginning of a new Liturgical Year. It seems a good time to start making New Year's resolutions. One of those is to renew my commitment to blogging, which I have missed terribly. As I have stated a number of times, blogging helps me a great deal. I am in need of just the kind of help blogging provides.

While I am on the subject of Advent, it bears noting that today, the day of after the Feast of St Martin of Tours, known as "Martinmas," on which fell Armistice Day- the centenary of which we observed yesterday, and my birthday, that formerly in some parts of the Western Church was the beginning of a season of preparation for Christmas. Where it was observed, it was a season similar to Lent, a season of intensified prayer, fasting, and alms-giving after the conclusion of a great feast and in preparation for an even greater one.

Most Eastern Christians are still encouraged to observe an Advent fast. Among Roman Catholics, it seems to me, Advent has become a very confused affair. This confusion predates the reforms made after Vatican II. Years ago as I was learning about these things myself and experimenting with them, I posted about them a lot. I mention this because today I am beginning my preparation for the celebration of the Lord's Nativity, that day when eternity broke into time. The Incarnation, it has been observed, "is so earth-shattering that it enacts something akin to the psychoanalytic concept of trauma" on the world. These next few weeks, Thanksgiving excepted, will be my Advent preparation.

During this period of preparing for Advent, I am going to endeavor to post more, not for your sake, dear readers, that would be presumptuous, but for my own. Nonetheless, as it's been for the past 12+ years, my prayer will be that what I write will help others encounter and follow Jesus in the hurly-burly of late modern life in advanced Western society. This milieu, the very one in which I find myself, is one in which it can be very difficult to encounter and follow Jesus. For those who are trying to follow him, it can be difficult to even really know what that means. One thing I can write with great certainty: the risen Lord is not encountered and cannot be followed by means of a political ideology, either of the left or right.

The challenge for disciples of Christ is to follow him in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Finding out exactly what this consists of for me requires me to be connected to him through prayer. In other words, it is always a matter of discernment, of being led by the Spirit. In addition to prayer, this requires sacrifice and the willingness to step outside of myself. Dear friends, there is no Christian spirituality that does not consist of the three spiritual disciplines taught to us by the Lord himself: prayer, fasting, alms-giving.

St Martin of Tours, by Léo Schnug, 1906. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Advent itself begins with First Vespers, known these days as Evening Prayer. Hence, the first liturgical office of the new year will be prayed on Saturday, 1 December, on or about sundown (liturgical days go from sundown to sundown, which is why you can attend Sunday Mass on Saturday evening). Here in Utah, official sundown on that day is (brace yourself) 5:01 PM.

It seems to me that Advent, despite being a short liturgical season, has several distinct aspects. The first aspect carries over from the Feast of Christ the King, which Roman Catholics observe on the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year. Each year on Christ the King we acknowledge that with the Incarnation of God's Only Begotten Son the end of the world has begun. And so, preparing for Christ's return in glory to judge the living and the dead, Advent takes on a penitential tone. Another aspect of Advent is preparing to celebrate, to commemorate, Jesus birth in Bethlehem of Judea more than 2,000 years ago. One might say these two aspects are welded together on the Third Sunday of Advent. The Third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday (the Sunday we light the rose-colored candle in the Advent wreath and, if available, the day we wear the rose vestments, instead of the violet ones). Each year on Gaudete Sunday our Gospel reading tells us about the ministry of John the Baptist. In no certain terms, our Gospel reading calls upon to repent. This reveals yet a third aspect of Advent: Jesus coming to us now in the present.

Advent, in case you did not know, means "coming." Without exaggeration one can say that nearly all of human history has been an advent: waiting for the Lord's Incarnation and waiting for his glorious return. But it is not as though his first advent was without effect. It's not like he showed up for a little while and then disappeared again. His Ascension was followed by Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is the mode of Christ's resurrection presence between the already of his first advent and not-yet of his second. The masterworks of the Spirit are the sacraments. The Eucharist is the sacrament of sacraments. It is through the sacraments that Christ not only makes himself present now but makes himself present among us, in us, and through us.

Keeping the above in mind, for those of us who participate in Mass predominantly or exclusively on Sundays and holy days (i.e., the days we are "obligated" to participate- this number includes me), each week can be approached as an Advent, as a preparation for another profound encounter with the Lord in the Mass. Hence, we observe Friday as Good Friday, Saturday as Holy Saturday, and Sunday as Easter/Pentecost.

A practice that helps me observe each week as an Advent is praying the Rosary daily. On Monday I pray the Joyful Mysteries; on Tuesday I pray the Luminous Mysteries; on Wednesday the Sorrowful Mysteries; Thursday the Glorious Mysteries. I let this be interrupted for some solemnities, on which I might pray the mysteries most appropriate for it. Then on Friday, I pray the Sorrowful Mysteries in the morning and try to pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy during the hour of mercy (i.e., 3:00 PM). On Saturday I might pray either the Joyful or Luminous again (during Advent and Christmas, the Joyful) and on Sundays, always the Glorious Mysteries. I know, I know this is not the traditional pattern. But then, in my view, the traditional pattern has never accounted for the Luminous Mysteries, promulgated by Pope John Paul II. It seems to me that not having a set of mysteries with which to meditate on the Lord's life and ministry was quite a discernible gap.

Just as during Advent, the Lord is with us throughout the week. It is our joy to make him present wherever we may be. It is his joy make himself present through us to others in our acts of kindness and charity.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Following Jesus requires a change of heart

Readings: Deut 6:2-6; Ps 18:2-4. 47.51; Heb 7:23-28; Mark 12:28b-34

It's very likely that you've heard or read the observation "Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car." Like most such pithy observations, there is something in this to which it is worth the church-goer to attend. Of course, there's a sense in which this observation is used in an exaggerated manner. The aim of this exaggerated manner is to point out that there is no need to attend church, at least not often. Sticking with the analogy of this observation, a car that never goes to a garage will likely break down and, while remaining a car (at least until it is scrapped or fixed, which fixing usually occurs in a garage) will be useless. However, my purpose in mentioning this observation is not so I could give this retort. On the contrary, it is the bit to which the church-goer ought to attend that interests me.

What is the bit to which church-goers, like me, should attend? We should attend to whether our religion is true or false. What makes the religion, the Christianity, of any particular Christian true or false depends on whether it is a matter of external observance only or whether one's external observance leads to the necessary change of heart. Having a changed heart can be summed up in one word: repent. The Greek word that is often translated into English as "repent" is metanoia. Without belaboring the etymology of this word, in essence, metanoia means to have a change of mind. Colloquially, then, to repent means to be converted. Making it even simpler, to be converted is to be changed. For the disciple of Christ, being changed into Christ-likeness is a long (usually life-long) endeavor. If taken seriously, becoming like Christ is at times very difficult because I need to be changed in ways that I recognize I need to change but that are very difficult for me and because I need to change in ways to which I am resistant as well as in ways I may not even recognize at present.

That true religion is a matter of the heart is what Jesus seeks to convey in today's Gospel. Jesus teaching about the two great commandments is the heart of the Torah: loving God with your whole being expressed as loving your neighbor as you love yourself. That this teaching is the heart of the Torah is demonstrated, at least in part, by our first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, which contains what in Hebrew is called the Shema Yisrael- "Hear, O Israel" (Deut 6:4). The other part comes from one of the chapters of the Book of Leviticus that comprise what is often referred to as "The Holiness Code": "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:18).

Like last week, one of the unique features of today's Gospel is that the Lord encounters someone who appears to be on the same wavelength. If you remember in last week's Gospel Bartimaeus (see: Mark 10:46-52), the blind beggar, by calling Jesus "Son of David," recognizes him as the Messiah. The irony of this pericope is that it is the blind man who "sees" Jesus for who he truly is even before the Lord restores his sight. This is why Jesus, after hearing Bartimaeus's request to see, tells him- "Go your way; your faith has saved you" (Mark 10:52). This is reminiscent of Jesus's healing of the paralytic way back at the beginning of his Galilean ministry (see Mark 2:1-12). Jesus tells the man whose friends lowered him into the room from the roof, "Child, your sins are forgiven" (Mark 2:5). The Lord only commands the man to walk in order to show those who doubted that he has the power to forgive sin, which is the power to bring about the healing we all need: a healed, or changed, heart.

In posing his question to the Lord, the scribe in today's Gospel seems to ask in an authentic manner. In other words, he is not trying to debate with Jesus or to trip him up. In light of Jesus's answer, the scribe recognizes that true religion is a matter of the heart, a matter of loving God by loving your neighbor. Going further, he recognizes something many of the Hebrew prophets taught: that the practice of rituals, even the ones commanded by God, in and of themselves accomplish nothing (see Amos 5:21-24 as an example). To believe you are saved merely by showing up gets back to the salient bit that arises from the car in the garage analogy. This is why Mass begins with the Penitential Rite and concludes with the Dismissal.

What happens in between the Penitential Rite and the Dismissal matters a lot. What matters even more is how we respond. One of the things that happen in between is the Liturgy of the Word, the proclamation and hearing of God's word, which hopefully includes a homily that instructs about what we've heard and draws some implications for our individual lives and our life together from it. If we're paying attention right now, both as preachers and hearers (a preacher must hear God's word before preaching), our Gospel readings are very challenging, especially for congregations consisting mostly of comfortable middle class people living in a wealthy society, one in which the haves seem hellbent on taking even more from the have-nots. If we are not open to letting ourselves be challenged by the Lord, then in what manner can we be considered his disciples?

Our epistle reading for today, taken once again from the Letter to the Hebrews, reinforces the Gospel lesson. The Eucharist is not a sacrifice like those offered by ancient pagan religions or even by the ancient Israelites in their Temple. The Eucharist is a living, non-bloody sacrifice by which, through the ministry of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, we sacrificially offer ourselves to God in service to those in need.

A fitting way to end this reflection is by appealing to the Letter of James. Along with the Gospel According to St. Mark, the Letter of James may well be the book of our uniquely Christian scriptures that teaches us, in a practical manner, what it means to adhere to the religion of Jesus:
Indeed someone may say, "You have faith and I have works." Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble (James 2:18-19)
Recognizing this and amending your ways accordingly is the change of heart Christ calls on his followers to have. It is the only way to move closer to God's kingdom and to make God's reign a present reality.

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls)

Despite not having the time to post anything other than my homilies last month, I haven't quite given up on blogging. In reality, I don't plan to give it up. In years past, I established a rhythm that was part of my weekly routine. As a result, as my weekly routine has changed I need to find to time to share some of the things I nearly always seem to be pondering. If nothing else, I find taking some time to write out my thoughts personally useful.

Ar present and quite by happenstance, I am reading three complementary books. Since I spent formative time during my conversion and  immediately after at the now sadly abandoned Our Lady of the  Holy Trinity Cistercian Abbey and I am completing my studies at a Benedictine college located at an abbey (Mt Angel), I suppose makes me some kind of distant relative to the Benedictine family, I am reading The Rule of St. Benedict along with Esther de Waal's commentary on the regula: A Life Giving Way. I am also reading Addison Hodges Hart's outstanding The Letter of James: A Pastoral Commentary. I have to say, it's been a long time since I read books that have helped me spiritually, which is to say with my humanity.

The Last Judgment, Giotto, 1306

Today is All Souls day. Because of my inability to participate in yesterday's solemnity, both yesterday and today, instead of Morning Prayer, I prayed the Office of Readings. For the most part, the offices for All Souls are taken from the Office for the Dead. But the second reading for the Office of Readings for the Feast of All Souls is taken from a book St. Ambrose of Milan wrote about the death of his brother, Satyrus. I was paricularly struck by a certain passage from the excerpt. It struck me because it gave some credence to my own preaching on death (i.e., death is not natural- it is the least natural thing) while helping me to develop the backside of this theology a bit more.

Here's the passage:
Death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; he prescribed it as a remedy. Human life was condemned because of sin to unremitting labor and unbearable sorrow and so began to experience the burden of wretchedness. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing (International Commission on English in the Liturgy, Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. IV, 1539)
Anyone who's ever read any of Anne Rice's vampire novels has at least a passing familiarity with what the Pastoral Doctor means by the last sentence of this paragraph. Once we reject grace, which rejection is part of the pattern of each of our lives, death serves as a remedy to living forever in a graceless state of being. Hence, God made death part of nature not only to spare us the hellishness of a graceless immortality, God permitted death in order to bring creation to completion through resurrection of his Son.

On All Souls, we pray for the souls in Purgatory. An indulgence for a soul in Purgatory can be obtained today by entering a church or a chapel and praying one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and one Glory Be. For the indulgence to be plenary you must be free from attachment to all sin, both venial and mortal (a difficult but presumably not impossible thing). If not, it is a partial indulgence. You need to go to confession 20 days before or 20 days after you pray those prayers in a designated place, and receive communion 20 days before or 20 days after. Another indulgence can be obtained if between now and 8 November you go to a cemetery and mentally pray for the dead. The same conditions with regard to attachment to sin, confession, and Holy Communion apply. It's worth doing for the communio sanctorum.

Our Friday traditio for this Feast of All Souls is Edward Elgar's composition for the Lux æterna, which is the communion antiphon for the great Requiem Mass

Lux æterna luceat eis, Domine:
Cum Sanctis tuis in æternum:
quia pius es.
Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine:
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Cum Sanctis tuis in æternum:
quia pius es.

This translates into English as:

May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord,
with Thy Saints for evermore:
for Thou art gracious.
Eternal rest give to them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them:
With Thy Saints for evermore,
for Thou art gracious.

Monday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: Hosea 2:16.17c.18.21-22; Ps 145:2-9; Matthew 9:18-26 Our Gospel today is Saint Matthew’s version of events first written about ...